A Reading Sabbatical

I once read about a woman who took a reading sabbatical.   She packed up a whole load of books and escaped to an isolated cottage in another country and read….and read….and read.   Sounds like the ideal vacation to me, and having a whole year to do nothing but read would be like heaven…..and so it has been during the pandemic. Not that there haven’t been other things to do while stuck at home, but there’s certainly been plenty of time for my favorite activity.

quote by Jane Austen

When I was younger and in the habit of escaping the Canadian winter for a week down south, I would always tote a pile of books in my suitcase (this was in the days before e-Readers) and spend at least half of the time poolside with a good book, the other days being devoted to exploring whatever tropical destination we happened to be in.  One vacation sticks out in my mind, a week on Turks and Caicos, long before it was developed, with five boring books and no way to buy more. The only shopping centre was a strip mall of offshore companies and one souvenir shop devoid of even a rack of paperbacks. For a reader, there’s nothing worse than being stuck on a tropical island with a bad selection of books. I don’t scuba dive/snorkel/can’t even swim, so after my daily walk on the lovely and pristine beach I was bored to tears.

I find other people’s bookshelves fascinating. When they’re interviewing some expert on TV about some matter of vital importance, I’m usually studying the bookshelves behind them and wondering what’s on them, and being envious if they are the nice floor-to-ceiling ones, preferably in white, which I can not install as I have hot water heat rads.

I average about one book a week, and start to feel antsy if I don’t have several in reserve, but this past year my intake has increased dramatically. I spent the first few months of the first lockdown working my way through my stash (18) of mostly non-fiction volumes from bookoutlet, but when the library reopened last summer for curbside pickup it was like Christmas in July!

I keep a book journal where I sporadically list the books I’ve read, usually just tossing the library slips in for later recording. I had intended to do a quarterly review here on the blog, but other topics got in the way, so while I’m not going to list or link to all the books I’ve read during the past year, or even make a best of the best list, here’s a sampling of some of them, with some (honest) observations.  

I should note that when I used to do book reviews on Goodreads, before I started blogging, I rated everything a 4, with an occasional 3 or 5, because I only reviewed books I liked. If the book was boring or not to my taste I would not finish it and so left the skewering to other folks. This was partly in an effort to be kind, keeping in mind that the author had poured much time and effort into something which after all did get published, and partly because reading is so subjective. Just because I didn’t like it, didn’t mean someone else wouldn’t enjoy it. But every once in awhile a book, usually a much-hyped bestseller, would annoy me so much that I would pen a fairly blunt review…..so expect things to be a bit more judgmental here. I haven’t had the best selection this past year, not being able to browse the shelves of my local library or bookstore so I was more reliant on the publishers PR, which sometimes can be disappointing.

I love vintage fashion so I thought The Grace Kelly Dress would be an interesting read.  Years ago, I read a historical fiction book about the designers behind Jackie Kennedy’s iconic pink boucle suit so I thought this would be something similar, but more of a three generational saga.   It was not – it was a whole lot of drama about saying yes to the dress, and the lavender-haired multi-tattooed tech CEO millennial granddaughter eventually said no to her grandmother’s historic couture gown and had it cut down into a pair of trousers.  (There I just saved you from a painful read).  I don’t think the author intended to make a statement about the difference between the generations but that’s what came across.  The 50’s were a much classier era, people had manners.

Separation Anxiety was a DNF (Did Not Finish) – it was on a recommended list but I found the plot so stupid (middle-aged woman facing empty nest “wears” her dog by carrying it around in a sling? – see cover photo) that I never even got past the first ten pages, other than to skim the ending and see she if she stayed with her lazy weed smoking husband. It was supposed to be hilarious and heart-breaking – it was neither. Sad, when the author hadn’t written anything in over a decade, that this is the best she could come up with.    

Sophie Hannah had been recommended to me as a good mystery writer and as she has been appointed the heir apparent to carry on Agatha Christie’s Hercules Poirot series (I read the Killings at Kingfisher Hall) but not being a big AG or HP fan, I decided to try one of her own books.  Perfect Little Children was a long disappointing read – you simply cannot have a murder mystery with only one suspect.   I kept waiting for the twist at the end but there wasn’t one.

I enjoyed the two non-fiction books so much I blogged about them – see The Library Book post and Secondhand – Travel in the new Global Garage Sale.

Every year I swear I’m done with Elin Hilderbrand and yet I find myself ordering her latest.  Her characters are now middle-aged and they need to grow up and stop drinking, and driving, and she needs to stop killing them off in the last chapter.  Troubles in Paradise was was the last of her winter Caribbean trilogy, but I’m long past the age where living in a tropical paradise would have any appeal to me.

In A Time for Mercy – John Grisham revisits the small southern town of his first book (which I’ve never read), 25 years later.  This was a captivating read, but I find sometimes his endings just dwindle away – it’s like he’s done with it, reached his word count, and that’s that. I also read his Camino Winds – a murder mystery set on an island off the coast of Florida during a hurricane. Good descriptions of the hurricane, but again the ending kind of trailed off. The last scene was the middle aged protagonist celebrating in a bar with his buddies. (Female version of Elin Hilderbrand)

I’m a big fan of Lisa Jewell, but her novels can sometimes be disturbing.  Invisible Girl was a good read, more like a murder mystery.   She really knows how to pull you into the story. 

The Talented Miss Farwell – about a small town bookkeeper who collects big time art – was an interesting book, unique in topic and plot line. It was certainly readable, but I’m not quite sure what the point was, and I expected a better ending. I enjoyed it for the view into the elite New York art world.

Elin Hilderbrand – 28 Summers – her annual Nantucket beach read.  (see above) Corny premise – star crossed Lovers meet on Nantucket the same weekend every year for three decades? But they can’t be together the other 51 weeks because he’s married and his wife is running for President. It was such an unrealistic plot it was funny, and not in a good way. If it wasn’t for Nantucket I wouldn’t bother with her, but I’ve always wanted to go there.

The Guest List – murder at a fancy resort wedding on an island off the coast of Ireland – good characterization and suspense.   A Reese Witherspoonl bookclub selection. I enjoyed this one so much I read her previous book The Hunting Party – set in Scotland.

Stranger in the Lake – murder mystery – Kimberly Belle was a new author to me, but I tried her other books and could not get into them.  (see Pretty Little Wife comment) 

I used to love Joanna Trollope, but she’s been more miss than hit the past decade – Mum and Dad was not one of her best.  Drama about a British couple who are vineyard owners in Spain and their millennial aged children. Poor character development, stilted and repetitive dialogue (Are you okay Mum?) and really the parents were only in their early 70’s, not even old enough to really worry about yet.   A lot of stuff about sibling rivalry and not much of a plot.

Hidden Valley Road – non-fiction book about a family of twelve children in the 60/70’s and six of the ten boys were diagnosed with schizophrenia.  Decades later, the two youngest, both girls, collaborate with a journalist investigating a genetic link to the disease.  An Oprah Book club selection, which I normally avoid like the plague, but this was totally fascinating. But then I like a good medical book and have had some exposure to schizophrenics through my work. Be grateful for a sound mind. The research was interesting, particularly the preventative angle. Not sure why they kept having kids when advised not to, but it must have been a nightmare living in that house. Both parents had died, so we do not get their POV.  

Dear Edward was a library bookclub selection which I skimmed but decided I did not want to read, as it was about a 12 year old boy who is the sole survivor of a plane crash which killed 183 people, including his parents.  The world is depressing enough….

Mary Higgins Clark was the Queen of Suspense, and I blogged about her passing last year at the age of 93. (link) Piece of My Heart is the last in the series she co-wrote with Alafair Burke.  It’s clear that even at her advanced age MHClark was the mastermind of the duo. This was so unlike the previous works that Ms. Burke must have finished this one mostly on her own, as it was as dull as toast, with little to no suspense.

The Midnight Library – by Matt Haig was good, but got off to a slow start, and I did not find the writing as a female protagonist quite believable. (In an author interview he remarked that he had made an earlier attempt from a male POV. He also said he was striving for something hopeful like It’s A Wonderful Life).  Writing about parallel universes seems to be a popular theme these days, (who knows how many other dimensions are out there we might be currently living in. Some of them might even contain aliens!) I was close to abandoning it, but LA (fellow book lover and blogger of Waking up on the Wrong Side of 50), convinced me to stick it out and I was glad I did as the ending was worth it.  Besides I love anything with a library in it.

Lean Out – by Tara Henley – I enjoyed this non-fiction ode to time-out so much that I blogged about in My Literary Salon. I seem to have had better luck with non-fiction this year.

Two of these were DNR or did not get even started.   The weather turned too warm for Insta-Pot soup, and World Travel – the Anthony Bourdain book, written by his collaborator after his death but full of his own quotes, had so much swearing in it I found it offensive and merely skimmed a few chapters. I used to watch his tv show occasionally but have never read his first, Kitchen Confidential or any of his other books so I have nothing to compare it to.

When the Stars Go Dark – by Paula McLain of The Paris Wife fame – about a CA detective searching for missing girls, was good for her first attempt at a non-historical/murder mystery.

The Push was a riveting read – motherhood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially when you have a deeply disturbed sociopath child.   I’m still trying to figure out what I think about this book, so it would make excellent bookclub fare.   As a first-time novelist, I wonder where she got the idea, but then we have only to look at the news and wonder what it would be like to be the parent of a child who commits a violent crime, even if she is only seven.

Pretty Little Wife – DNF – reminder – do not order anything with the wife/exwife/trophy wife as the murder victim/suspect/crime solver etc.

Anxious People – Sorry LA – I know you said to give it a chance, and I may someday but it was overdue and I had to take it back.   By the same author as A Man Called Ove – which I loved and which Tom Hanks is re-making as a movie….I enjoyed the Swedish version.

The Listening Path – by Julia Cameron – a big disappointment which I blogged about anyway.

Keep Sharp – by Dr. Sanjay Gupta.   I loved this book, it’s an easy read for non-medical folks, full of common sense advice but it’s scary to think the decisions we make in middle-age determine how well we live in old age.  I may blog on this later.  He has another book coming out later in the year – World War C – Lessons from the Covid Pandemic.

The Last Garden in England – library bookclub selection, a multi-generational story about an English garden.   A good tale, but nothing much to discuss, character driven with the garden merely a background.

A Promised Land – presidential memoir by Barrack Obama – although it’s not pictured here.  I read his two earlier books but they were slim volumes. I’m sure his time in the White House was interesting but 700 pages was just way too much detail for me.  I got to page 200 and it was still the primaries, and I had to return it and besides, Michelle said it better and more concisely in Becoming.  I’ve not heard too much about this book after the initial buzz, but there is to be a volume two.  I like to read in bed with the book propped up on my lap and it was just way too heavy…..literally, it weighed a ton.

The Last Bookshop in London – this was a surprisingly good read for light historical fiction, but then I love anything with a bookshop.  Set in WW2 England during the Blitz….you can imagine the rest.

The Windsor Knot – cute premise and title with Queen Elizabeth playing sleuth. It was a slow, not very suspenseful read but somehow I do not think the Queen would be amused. Not everyone’s cup of tea.

The Lost Apothecary – also a good historical fiction murder mystery, but then I’m biased towards anything with an apothecary, especially a female one, even if it was a place you went to obtain poison for your intended (male) victim. The 1800 London past woven into a present day story, with a surprisingly hopeful ending. 

Biggest disappointing read of the year which I had been so looking forward to was Jodi Picoult’s – The Book of Two Ways. Book opens with married female protagonist surviving a plane crash. Does she go home to her husband and child or fly off someplace else? Waded through 400 pages on death doulas, AI, Egyptian hieroglyphics and archaeology, much of which was standard university lecture material and had little to do with the plot, only to arrive at a totally ambiguous ending. I guess if you live in a parallel universe you don’t have to chose between your responsible-but-no-longer-in-love-with husband and your sexy grad-school Indiana-Jones type boyfriend because you can have both? Or maybe you the reader gets to decide? The ending was just plain annoying. In the author notes she thanks her editor for making her change it as it was so much better, which only left me wondering what the original ending might have been. I’ve never known Jodi Picoult to write a bad book before so it was doubly disappointing. I found her last one, Small Great Things, (how someone becomes a white supremacist) a timely and outstanding read.

There were many other books I didn’t take photos of…..some the kind you can’t put down.

I particularly enjoyed The Pull of the Stars – by Emma Donoghue about an obstetrical hospital in Ireland during the 1918 Spanish flu, which I found riveting, both for it’s historical obstetrical detail (not advised for anyone pregnant but many of my friends were OB nurses) and for it’s depiction of the pandemic (much the same as today, masks, distancing, fresh air, but thank god no carbolic acid disinfectant). I was surprised by the ending, but after I researched the author it make sense. Only a well respected writer (the Room) could get away with no quotation marks around the dialogue, an odd feature which didn’t seem to distract from the story.

I love murder mysteries and psychological thrillers, if they’re not too gory and I have my favorite authors – One by One by Ruth Ware was excellent, the setting a snowy ski chalet in the French alps with eight co-workers. The End of Her – by Canadian author Shari Lapena who is consistently good also, and Grace is Gone – by Clare McIntosh. Woman on the Edge – by Samantha Bailey, about a woman who hands her baby to another woman on the subway platform before she jumps, was also an interesting read.

For historical fiction, The Book of Lost Names – Kristen Harmel – a WW2 saga about a female forger helping Jewish children escape, and The Paris Library -Janet Skeslien Charles about librarians working at the American Library in Paris during the Nazi occupation, – were both good reads.

I hope you have found something interesting here for your summer reading.  I also have a link to My Literary Salon reviews on the front pages of my website on the main menu under Books.

It’s either feast or famine, and I have little out from the library at the moment, which has been the recent victim of a “cyber security incident” thus disabling the online reservation process. I hope they get it fixed soon, or we Readers will all soon be in withdrawal. I’m always up for a recommendation, so please leave any favorite reads or authors you’ve discovered in comments.

PS. 3000 words – and I was criticizing Obama? Maybe I’ll stick to a quarterly review in the future…

The Library Book

 This months literary salon pick is a non-fiction book titled, The Library Book, penned by Susan Orlean, a long time staff writer for The New Yorker.   With those credentials you know it will be good, and I must say this was one of my favorite reads this summer.   But then the library has always been one of my favorite places, especially during the COVID crisis when their curbside pickup has been a real lifesaver – transporting me to another world for awhile.   

Jane Austen quote re libraries 2 (2)

(Quote by Jane Austen)

While I do not have my own library at home, just random bookshelves, I’ve been a proud library patron since the age of seven when we took a class trip to our newly opened village library.  Although small in size with just two rooms, a children’s section and the adults side, I thought it the most marvelous place and was excited to have my own library card.   I could already read by then, having started with the Dick/Sally/Jane books, but here were shelf after shelf of books, each with a different story just waiting to be told.      

Jane Austen quote re library 2(4)

(quote Jane Austen)

As a quiet middle child I could always be found somewhere with my nose in a book.   My mother would take me and my younger brother to the library every Saturday (after his hockey game and penny candy treats), and I would stock up on books for the following week.   The library was one of the few buildings in town with A/C and I can still recall the blast of cool air which hit you when you entered the vestibule, plus the distinctive musty smell of books.   The librarian, an older woman named Mrs. Sekritis sat behind a tall circular desk, and she would often comment on my choices as I grew older.  While our little library stocked picture books for children and adult fiction for grown-ups, the selection for Young Adults (if that genre even existed back then) was limited – perhaps only L.M. Montgomery (I read the whole Anne series) and Louisa May Alcott (like many girls Jo was my heroine).   And so I read the classics way too young, Dickens, the Brontes, whatever sounded interesting on the book jacket.  Occasionally, when I would come across a YA book, I would find it fascinating reading about kids my own age, so different from my rather isolated life growing up on a farm. 

I still get the majority of my books from the library, as I read so much it would be too expensive to buy them all, and our small local  library is excellent at ordering in anything you might request, plus the librarians there are all such wonderful people.   I seldom visit the larger downtown branch where the service is impersonal and the reserve lists long, except to browse the large print books (easier for reading outside with my aging eyes) of which they have a better selection.   But whichever branch I visit, I still consider the library a sacred place.       

But back to The Library Book.

The Library Book - Susan Orlean

Goodreads/Publishers Blurb:

On the morning of April 29, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual fire alarm. As one fireman recounted, “Once that first stack got going, it was ‘Goodbye, Charlie.’” The fire was disastrous: it reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?       
 
Weaving her lifelong love of books and reading into an investigation of the fire, award-winning New Yorker reporter and New York Times bestselling author Susan Orlean delivers a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling book that manages to tell the broader story of libraries and librarians in a way that has never been done before.
 
In The Library Book, Orlean chronicles the LAPL fire and its aftermath to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives; delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from their humble beginnings as a metropolitan charitable initiative to their current status as a cornerstone of national identity; brings each department of the library to vivid life through on-the-ground reporting; studies arson and attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; reflects on her own experiences in libraries; and reexamines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the LAPL more than thirty years ago.
 
Along the way, Orlean introduces us to an unforgettable cast of characters from libraries past and present—from Mary Foy, who in 1880 at eighteen years old was named the head of the Los Angeles Public Library at a time when men still dominated the role, to Dr. C.J.K. Jones, a pastor, citrus farmer, and polymath known as “The Human Encyclopedia” who roamed the library dispensing information; from Charles Lummis, a wildly eccentric journalist and adventurer who was determined to make the L.A. library one of the best in the world, to the current staff, who do heroic work every day to ensure that their institution remains a vital part of the city it serves.
 
Brimming with her signature wit, insight, compassion, and talent for deep research, The Library Book is Susan Orlean’s thrilling journey through the stacks that reveals how these beloved institutions provide much more than just books—and why they remain an essential part of the heart, mind, and soul of our country. It is also a master journalist’s reminder that, perhaps especially in the digital era, they are more necessary than ever.   
 
Discussion:   
 
As mentioned on the cover blurb, this 2018 book is a little bit of everything – true crime, history, biography and first rate journalism.   The story of who lit the fire is fascinating and interwoven among the various chapters.  She delves into the history of library fires over the years from ancient Egypt to the famous book burning of the Nazis in WW2, plus the destruction of thousands of books in wars including recent ones like the Gulf war – a list of the lost libraries of the world, so many words destroyed forever.  She covers biographies of  librarians, a different breed who must love people as much as they love books and the future and expanded role of libraries in our communities as beacons for the homeless and social services centers, as well as branching into art, music and technical programs such as maker spaces.   (Even our small branch has a technical support person on staff but I’m not sure I could listen to that annoying 3D printer all day).   I was aware of the history of the Carnegie libraries, but not the reason behind it.   As a young boy Andrew Carnegie couldn’t afford the $2 fee for the local lending library, so he spent the last third of his life giving money away, funding a legacy of 1700 libraries for future generations of readers.   In much the same way that Bill Gates spent a decade funding literacy in third world countries.   If you want to change the world, books can help, one mind at a time.   Introducing your child to the pleasure of books and reading is even more important now in this time of COVID, when education seems so perilous. 
 
And lastly I loved this book for it’s perfect prose, here’s a sample from page 309. 
 
“The library is a whispering post.  You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen.   It was that affirmation that always amazed me.  Even the oddest, most particular book was written with that kind of crazy courage – the writer’s belief that someone would find his or her book important to read.   I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary, and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them.  It declares that all these stories matter, and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another, and to our past and to what is still to come.  I realized that this entire time, learning about the library, I had been convincing myself that my hope to tell a long-lasting story, to create something that endured, to be alive somehow as long, as someone would read my books, was what drove me on, story after story:  it was my lifeline, my passion, my way to understand who I was.  I thought about my mother, who died when I was halfway done with this book, and I knew how pleased she would have been to see me in the library, and I was able to use that thought to transport myself for a split second to a time when I was young and she was in the moment, alert and tender, with years ahead of her, and she was beaming at me as I toddled to the checkout counter with an armload of books.  I knew that if we had come here together, to this enchanted place of stucco and statuary and all the stories in the world for us to have, she would have reminded me just about now that if she could have chosen any profession in the world, she would have been a librarian.” 
 
and another excerpt from pg 93 
 
 “In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone has died is to say his or her library has burned.   When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect.  Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by out experiences and emotions; each individuals consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve catalogued and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived.   It is something that no one else can share, one that burns down and disappears when we died.  But if you can take something from that internal collection and share it – with one person or with the larger world, on the page or in a story recited – it takes on a life of its own.”
 
And so we read on…..
 
Postscript:  I was moved recently by this video which fellow blogger Annie (AnnieAsksYou) posted, so I’m going to share it here.   It’s a short clip of congressman John Lewis, who died recently at the age of 80, accepting the 2016 National Book Award for young people’s literature for March, his story of the civil rights movement.  As a young black teenager in 1956 he was denied the privilege of a library card as the library was for whites only, but he had a teacher who encouraged him to “read my child, read.”     
 

Books and Brownies

It’s winter – prime reading season, so time for a round up of some of the best books I’ve read over the past few months.  These are best savored with a cup of tea and a brownie…or two…..the kind with lots of icing.

Brownies

As I’m trying to practice an economy of words these days, I have condensed the summaries.   Click on the link for the full publishers blurb.    The list is in descending order of greatness. 

The Family UpstairsThe Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A page-turning jewel of a book, her best yet.

Libby Jones receives a letter from a lawyer on her 25th birthday,  telling her the identity of her birth parents and also that she is the sole inheritor of an abandoned mansion in one of London’s fashionable neighborhoods.  Young and struggling, everything in her life is about to change.   But others have been waiting for this day too.   Twenty-five years ago, police were called to the house with reports of a baby crying.   When they arrived, they found a healthy ten-month-old happily cooing in her crib.  Downstairs in the kitchen lay three dead bodies, all dressed in black, next to a hastily scrawled note, and the four other children reported to live there were gone.

Think your family is dysfunctional?   After reading a Lisa Jewell novel they might seem quite normal by comparison.   I find many of her books disturbing in a creepy psychological way – but this is the most bizarre yet.   There’s definitely an art to weaving a story like that, and she’s mastered it in her latest.        

Someone We Know

Someone We Know by Shari Lapena

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

                                                                                                                   

                                                                                                                     

“This is a very difficult letter to write. I hope you will not hate us too much. . . My son broke into your home recently while you were out.”   In a quiet, leafy suburb in upstate New York, a teenager has been sneaking into houses–and into the owners’ computers as well–learning their secrets, and maybe sharing some of them, too.   Who is he, and what might he have uncovered? After two anonymous letters are received, whispers start to circulate, and suspicion mounts. And when a woman down the street is found murdered, the tension reaches the breaking point. Who killed her? Who knows more than they’re telling? And how far will all these very nice people go to protect their own secrets?

While this is obviously one of those you can’t trust anybody tales, Shari Lapena takes a simple premise, a snooping teenage hacker, and gives it enough twists and turns to make it an entertaining ride.   Having read all of her previous bestsellers (An Unwanted Guest, A Stranger in the House, and The Couple Next Door, I expected this to be good, and it was.   She used to be  a Toronto lawyer – I hope she never returns to practicing law.  

If You Knew HerIf You Knew Her by Emily Elgar

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Emily Edgar is a new author and I hope this is the first of many.

                                                                                                                         

The perfect life, or the perfect lie?   Cassie had it all – the fairytale wedding, the stunning home, the perfect husband. But when she arrives on the intensive care ward in a coma it soon becomes clear that she has a secret.   Alice, the chief nurse on the ward begins to feel a connection with Cassie and can’t help but wonder if things are not quite as they seem.  Frank, another patient, can hear and see everything around him but cannot communicate. He understands that Cassie’s life is in danger and only he holds the truth, which no one can know and he cannot tell.

A first time author, Emily Elgar has another one coming out in 2020, Grace is Gone.  She wrote this book after taking a novel-writing course at the Faber Academy UK in 2014.   I enjoyed the medical background, although I did guess the ending.   Still, A for effort and for getting published in 37 countries.  A very auspicious beginning – I enjoyed it so much I ordered her new one.  

Grace is GoneGrace is Gone by Emily Elgar

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Meg and her daughter Grace are the most beloved family in Ashford, so when Meg is found brutally murdered and her daughter Grace missing, the town is rocked by the tragedy.   Who would kidnap a sick teenager? Who would murder a mother who sacrificed everything?    As the community come to terms with what’s happened, an unlikely pair start searching for answers: Jon, the most hated journalist in Ashford and Cara, the young woman who found Meg’s body. But once they start digging into the past, they will soon realize there’s no going back.

Her second book is even better, much more layered and complex.  In the jacket photo she looks about twelve, but is married and just had a baby so she must be older.   I hope she finds a good babysitter and continues to write.      

I’m wondering why all these psychological thrillers only have three or four words in the title?    I guess they’re trying to sum up the book in the fewest words possible.  

The Shape of FamilyThe Shape of Family by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

From the international bestselling author of Secret Daughter and The Golden Son comes a poignant, unforgettable novel about an intercultural couple facing a family crisis.   Jaya, the cultured daughter of an Indian diplomat and Keith, an ambitious banker from middle-class Philadelphia, meet in a London pub in 1988 and make a life together in suburban California. Their strong marriage is built on shared beliefs and love for their two children: headstrong teenager Karina and young son Prem, the light of their home.    But love and prosperity cannot protect them from sudden, unspeakable tragedy, and the family’s foundation cracks as each member struggles to seek a way forward. Jaya finds solace in spirituality. Keith wagers on his high-powered career. Karina focuses relentlessly on her future and independence. And Prem watches helplessly as his once close-knit family drifts apart.

A family drama about an intercultural couple, and while it might sound predictable, it’s not.   It’s also immensely readable.

The GuardiansThe Guardians by John Grisham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the small north Florida town of Seabrook, a young lawyer named Keith Russo was shot dead at his desk as he worked late one night. The killer left no clues behind. There were no witnesses, no real suspects, no one with a motive. The police soon settled on Quincy Miller, a young black man who was once a client of Russo’s.  Quincy was framed, convicted, and sent to prison for life. For twenty-two years he languished in prison with no lawyer, no advocate on the outside. Then he wrote a letter to Guardian Ministries, a small innocence group founded by a lawyer/minister named Cullen Post.   Guardian handles only a few innocence cases at a time, and Post is its only investigator. He travels the South fighting wrongful convictions and taking cases no one else will touch. With Quincy Miller, though, he gets far more than he bargained for.

One of his better legal thrillers, but his books often make me wonder about  the US justice system, especially in small sleepy southern towns. 

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
How did Fidel Castro fool the CIA for a generation? Why did Neville Chamberlain think he could trust Adolf Hitler? Why are campus sexual assaults on the rise? Do television sitcoms teach us something about the way we relate to each other that isn’t true?   Gladwell also revisits the deceptions of Bernie Madoff, the trial of Amanda Knox, and the suicide of Sylvia Plath.   While tackling all these questions, Malcolm Gladwell (The Tippling Point, Outliers), discusses the tools and strategies we use to make sense of people we don’t know. And because we don’t know how to talk to strangers, we are inviting conflict and misunderstanding in ways that have a profound effect on our lives and our world.

This book was such a mish-mash of seemingly unrelated chapters, including the bizarre one on Sylvia Plath, that I was left wondering – what was the point of it all.   Unlike his previous books (Outliers, The Tipping Point), it didn’t seem to have a cohesive theme.    I’m not sure what the type of gas stove sold in Britain in the 1960’s has to to with talking to strangers, but maybe anything related to Sylvia Plath sells.   Why not a chapter about Jane Austen’s romances, or a Bookshop in Paris?  (All references guaranteed to sell a book no matter what).   While it could have used more editing, it was an interesting read anyway, and helped to pass the time (6 hours) in the ER dept with a sick family member.   Sometimes that’s the best thing about a good non-fiction book –  you can read a chapter here or there, no need to stay up late to see what happens next.   

I hope you have enjoyed my winter selections, but you’re on your own for the brownies!   Have you read any good books lately?     (1500 words – most of them not mine)

  

The Literary Salon – Beach Books Summer 2019

Beach umbrella

What makes a great beach book – any book with summer in the title.   Here’s my summer reading list (four read, two to go), and although only two of my selections qualify with respect to the title, they are all beach-worthy in one way or another.   

First place, as always, goes to Elin Hilderbrand’s annual summer release, Summer of 69.  

Summer of 69

Publisher’s Blurb:  Follow New York Times bestselling author Elin Hilderbrand back in time and join a Nantucket family as they experience the drama, intrigue, and upheaval of a 1960s summer.   Welcome to the most tumultuous summer of the twentieth century. It’s 1969, and for the Levin family, the times they are a-changing. Every year the children have looked forward to spending the summer at their grandmother’s historic home in downtown Nantucket. But like so much else in America, nothing is the same: Blair, the oldest sister, is marooned in Boston, pregnant with twins and unable to travel. Middle sister Kirby, caught up in the thrilling vortex of civil rights protests and determined to be independent, takes a summer job on Martha’s Vineyard. Only-son Tiger is an infantry soldier, recently deployed to Vietnam. Thirteen-year-old Jessie suddenly feels like an only child, marooned in the house with her out-of-touch grandmother and her worried mother, each of them hiding a troubling secret. As the summer heats up, Ted Kennedy sinks a car in Chappaquiddick, man flies to the moon, and Jessie and her family experience their own dramatic upheavals along with the rest of the country.   In her first “historical novel,” rich with the details of an era that shaped both a country and an island thirty miles out to sea, Elin Hilderbrand once again proves her title as queen of the summer novel.

Why I liked it:    Her usual fare, but anyone who lived through the summer of 1969 (sorry millennials), will find this book especially appealing.   I was the same age as Jesse the youngest of the siblings, so I could really relate to the story line, the fashions and the music.    I especially liked how she incorporated songs of the era as chapter titles. 

“For What It’s Worth” I think we had better songs back then.   I’d like to “Get Back” to that year on “A Magic Carpet Ride” as “Those Were the Days” my friend.   I was a “Young Girl” in ’69, a year when “Everybody’s Talking” about “Fly Me To The Moon”, that distant orb in the sky which was “A Whiter Shade of Pale”.    It was the “Time of the Season” for love and as we were “Born to be Wild” we were full of “Midnight Confessions”.   We didn’t need “Help” from “Mother’s Little Helper” or “White Rabbits” or have the “Summertime Blues” as it was a time of peace and hope.   For all it’s protests it was also a time of optimistic change, as politically “Everyday People” who had “Heard It Through The Grapevine” (as opposed to CNN or Fox), did not have “Suspicious Minds” and could look at issues “From Both Sides Now”.    Perhaps, “Someday We’ll Be Together” again, hopefully “More Today than Yesterday.”     Whew – I got them all in!   (How many do you remember?)

Instead of flying to the moon, let’s fly to Paris – One Summer in Paris – by Sarah Morgan

One Summer in Paris

Publishers Blurb:  To celebrate their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, Grace has planned the surprise of a lifetime for her husband—a romantic getaway to Paris. But she never expected he’d have a surprise of his own: he wants a divorce. Reeling from the shock but refusing to be broken, a devastated Grace makes the bold decision to go to Paris alone.  Audrey, a young woman from London, has left behind a heartache of her own when she arrives in Paris. A job in a bookshop is her ticket to freedom, but with no money and no knowledge of the French language, suddenly a summer spent wandering the cobbled streets alone seems much more likely…until she meets Grace, and everything changes.   Grace can’t believe how daring Audrey is. Audrey can’t believe how cautious newly single Grace is.  Living in neighboring apartments above the bookshop, this unlikely pair offer each other just what they’ve both been missing. They came to Paris to find themselves, but finding this unbreakable friendship might be the best thing that’s ever happened to them…

Why I liked it:   I’m not a big fan of romance fiction, but was attracted by the title and the book jacket.    I’ve never been to Paris, the story line sounded promising and it had a bookstore in it.   Basically this book was pure fluff, albeit readable fluff.   I don’t think I’ll be reading anything more by this author, as she is traditionally a romance writer and it was a bit too predictable for me.   Plus there was actually very little about Paris or the bookstore in it, which just goes to show how we can get sucked in by marketing.     (I swear if I ever write my murder mystery I’m going to call it Murder at the Paris Bookshop even though it’s set in another country – guaranteed sales – but perhaps that title has already been taken?)    

Did I mention I’m a sucker for any title with a bookstore in it, so No. 3 is The Bookstore on the Corner – by Jenny Colgan.   

The Bookshop on the Corner

Publishers Blurb:   Nina Redmond is a literary matchmaker. Pairing a reader with that perfect book is her passion… and also her job. Or at least it was. Until yesterday, she was a librarian in the hectic city. But now the job she loved is no more.  Determined to make a new life for herself, Nina moves to a sleepy village many miles away. There she buys a van and transforms it into a bookmobile—a mobile bookshop that she drives from neighborhood to neighborhood, changing one life after another with the power of storytelling From helping her grumpy landlord deliver a lamb, to sharing picnics with a charming train conductor who serenades her with poetry, Nina discovers there’s plenty of adventure, magic, and soul in a place that’s beginning to feel like home… a place where she just might be able to write her own happy ending.

Why I liked it:    I haven’t read it yet, but with a bookstore, how could it fail?  (I’m reserving judgement, see above).   (Edited to add:  Two chapters in and I’m loving this book – the main character, the humorous style of writing, the Scottish locale, it’s simply charming, and there are actual books in it!)  (Note after finishing:  I’m quite disappointed – two thirds of the way through this book turned into a Hallmark movie.   It was all down hill after the scene with Mr. Darcy wearing a kilt and carrying an injured lamb…..well those were actually two separate scenes but you get the drift….really I m much too old for this romance stuff.  Where is Jane Austen when you need her!)   

It’s summer concert season.   Let’s go back in time again, this time to the 70’s.  Based loosely on the rock group Fleetwood Mac, Daisy Jones and the Six – by Taylor Jenkins Reid was a selection of Reese Witherspoon’s book club.    I can already see the movie being made….now who will play the lead singers?

Daisy Jones and The Six

Publisher’s Blurb:  Everyone knows Daisy Jones & The Six, but nobody knows the reason behind their split at the absolute height of their popularity . . . until now.
Daisy is a girl coming of age in L.A. in the late sixties, sneaking into clubs on the Sunset Strip, sleeping with rock stars, and dreaming of singing at the Whisky a Go Go. The sex and drugs are thrilling, but it’s the rock and roll she loves most. By the time she’s twenty, her voice is getting noticed, and she has the kind of heedless beauty that makes people do crazy things.  Also getting noticed is The Six, a band led by the brooding Billy Dunne. On the eve of their first tour, his girlfriend Camila finds out she’s pregnant, and with the pressure of impending fatherhood and fame, Billy goes a little wild on the road.   Daisy and Billy cross paths when a producer realizes that the key to supercharged success is to put the two together. What happens next will become the stuff of legend.   The making of that legend is chronicled in this riveting and unforgettable novel, written as an oral history of one of the biggest bands of the seventies. Taylor Jenkins Reid is a talented writer who takes her work to a new level with Daisy Jones & The Six, brilliantly capturing a place and time in an utterly distinctive voice.

Why I liked it:  Despite it’s great reviews I wasn’t sure I was going to like this book.   It wasn’t a subject matter that interested me, as I attended a Catholic high school and my recollection of the 70’s was not exactly sex, drugs and rock and roll.    But I ended up loving it – and it’s definitely one of the most memorable books I’ve read this year.  Basically it’s a love story, but not your typical one.   I even liked the unique interview format a la Rolling Stone, which surprisingly readable.  The book is pure fiction but the characters seemed so real that several younger reviewers on Goodreads believed it was a memoir about a real band.   Someone really needs to set those lyrics at the end to music.

Enough of the retro, here’s a psychological thriller to keep you in suspense during those nights when it’s too hot to sleep – The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

The Silent Patient

Publishers Blurb:  Alicia Berenson’s life is seemingly perfect. A famous painter married to an in-demand fashion photographer, she lives in a grand house with big windows overlooking a park in one of London’s most desirable areas. One evening her husband Gabriel returns home late from a fashion shoot, and Alicia shoots him five times in the face, and then never speaks another word.   Alicia’s refusal to talk, or give any kind of explanation, turns a domestic tragedy into something far grander, a mystery that captures the public imagination and casts Alicia into notoriety. The price of her art skyrockets, and she, the silent patient, is hidden away from the tabloids and spotlight at the Grove, a secure forensic unit in North London.   Theo Faber is a criminal psychotherapist who has waited a long time for the opportunity to work with Alicia. His determination to get her to talk and unravel the mystery of why she shot her husband takes him down a twisting path into his own motivations—a search for the truth that threatens to consume him….

Why I liked it:   I don’t usually like first person narratives, especially by male protagonists,  but this was very well done and overall an excellent book for a first time novelist.    Never even saw the ending coming – I am in awe of the brilliance.  

And lastly, because even the best of summers have to come to an end and real life resumes, a family drama – After the End – by Clare MacIntosh.

After The End

Publisher’s Blurb:  Max and Pip are the strongest couple you know. They’re best friends, lovers—unshakable. But then their son gets sick and the doctors put the question of his survival into their hands. For the first time, Max and Pip can’t agree. They each want a different future for their son.   What if they could have both?  A gripping and propulsive exploration of love, marriage, parenthood, and the road not taken, After the End brings one unforgettable family from unimaginable loss to a surprising, satisfying, and redemptive ending and the life they are fated to find.

Why I liked it:   I haven’t read this one yet either.   I’m saving it for August, but it sounds like a departure from her usual crime suspense novels (I Let You Go, I See You).    We shall see….

There – a little something for everyone under the sun – Happy Reading!    

PS.   What are you reading this summer?

Beach pail

The Literary Salon: The Perfect Couple

Beach Book

We all know them – the perfect couple.  Or are they?   The Perfect Couple is the perfect book for Valentine’s Day, because who doesn’t like to read about relationships, perfect and otherwise.    At the very least, you can escape winter for a few hours  – just keep an eye out for any dead bodies washing up on shore!

The Publisher’s Blurb:

It’s Nantucket wedding season, also known as summer – the sight of a bride racing down Main Street is as common as the sun setting at Madaket Beach. The Otis-Winbury wedding promises to be an event to remember: the groom’s wealthy parents have spared no expense to host a lavish ceremony at their oceanfront estate.

But it’s going to be memorable for all the wrong reasons after tragedy strikes: a body is discovered in Nantucket Harbor just hours before the ceremony-and everyone in the wedding party is suddenly a suspect. As Chief of Police Ed Kapenash interviews the bride, the groom, the groom’s famous mystery-novelist mother, and even a member of his own family, he discovers that every wedding is a minefield-and no couple is perfect. Featuring beloved characters from The Castaways, Beautiful Day, and A Summer Affair, The Perfect Couple proves once again that Elin Hilderbrand is the queen of the summer beach read.

A bit about the Author:

Elin Hilderbrand is a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University and the Iowa Writers Workshop. She has lived on Nantucket for 25 years and is the mother of three teenagers.   The Perfect Couple is her twenty-first novel.

My Goodreads Review:

My Goodreads Review:The Perfect CoupleThe Perfect Couple by Elin Hilderbrand

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Perfect Beach Read. Her best book yet, the usual island fare with the added twist of a murder mystery. After a dead body is found floating in the water the morning of a fancy wedding all the guests and family members are suspects. Intricately plotted, the characters and descriptions are so real you will feel like you just spent a week on Nantucket. If you take this book to the beach you will not look up once it is so engrossing…..I could hardly put it down. I hope she does more murder mysteries…..looking forward to her new winter series.

Discussion:

The first book in my Literary Salon series – An Unwanted Guest – was a study in plot development, just how does one plot a murder mystery?   One of the reasons I chose this second book was for it’s characterizations.  If you have written 21 novels, how do you keep coming up with new characters?  Or are they just cookie-cutter people – change the job, name, appearance?   Her characters are usually flawed beings who make bad choices.  They drink a lot….like fish since we’re going with the water theme.   Sometimes they are so annoying and make such stupid decisions that you feel like abandoning them altogether.   You want the reader to like your characters or at least sympathize with them, not think they are fools.  (Note to self –  make my characters smarter and sober…..no vino for them).    

Elin Hilderbrand is the Queen of Beach Fluff, a genre that is often romance but usually just something lighthearted enough to take to the beach.    She comes out with a big fat beach novel every July, and often a short novella before Christmas.    While I have always enjoyed her books, I had grown a bit weary of the format.   The same old bed-hopping, drinking, even worse drinking while driving, piss-poor parents (her words) whose uncontrollable teenagers are doing the same thing – tale grows stale after awhile, and I admit the books wouldn’t be half as appealing if they weren’t set on the island of Nantucket.   (In much the same way I had tired of Joanna Trollope but her last novel, An Unsuitable Match, about a late in life marriage, was actually quite good – but that’s a whole other topic).    These books are fast food fiction, you already know what you are going to get.   There’s usually plenty of family dynamics and complicated romances all destined to work out (or not) in the end, because hey – it’s beach fluff.   But in this her latest book, you have all of the above, plus she has added a murder mystery and the book seems to have taken on a more serious tone.   She is older now and survived breast cancer in 2014.    I enjoyed the mystery aspect of it, and hope she does more in that vein.    I am currently reading the first of her new winter series, Winter in Paradise – see link, in which a wife loses her husband of 25 years in a helicopter crash in the US Virgin Islands, and finds out he had a whole other life on the island.   (not good – back to trashy again….five drinks on a boat cruise before 10am????)   In the jacket blurb the author says she vacations on St. John’s for five weeks every spring, so she can get big chunks of her writing done in privacy.  (maybe that’s my problem – I need to rent a Caribbean villa with turquoise views).   She does seem to like writing about islands, and the island lifestyle.   She’s certainly been a very successful author financially, and if the format works keep at it, but I can’t help but wish she would tone it down a bit.   But then I probably fall into this category, wherein, Tag the father in law, (who was having an affair with the maid of honor), describes the average reader of his wife’s books.         

‘Her fan base is nearly down to no one but the devoted cat ladies.  Tag is thinking about the devoted cat lady – tucked away in her Cotswold cottage fixing a cup of tea and preparing to spend a rainy afternoon in an armchair with a tabby spread across her lap as she cracks open the latest exotically located Greer Garson mystery.’

In his view, this is a dull life, but it sounds appealing to me and I don’t even own a cat.   But then I am older and her books are pretty much the only romance genre I read.   Although she is a good storyteller, I sometimes find her books are just too trashy.   I would love to see what she does with a theme and characters a little less shallow….and a little less preoccupied with booze and infidelity.   That may seem like an odd thing to criticize as we read escapist fiction to escape, but she is such a good writer that I wish she would tackle some more important stuff, like Jodi Picoult does.   Despite that, The Perfect Couple does have something to say about relationships, both old (how many long term couples stay together for financial reasons despite the affairs) and new, plus a riveting story-line.    If you grew up in the eighties with the Not-Married- Before-Thirty-Terrorist Theory of Love and rom.coms like When Harry Met Sally (doomed IMO, totally incompatible all that arguing) and Sleepless in Seattle (flying all the way across the country to meet someone whose voice you liked on the radio?) then love at first sight may seem perfectly plausible – but do the couple at the end of the book stand a chance?  What do they know about each other?  Yes, there are red flags, but isn’t it all unpredictable anyway – fate is fickle.    Success in love and marriage happens for some people and not others, but hopefully you don’t drown in the process.

Quote of the Day:    “Remember that sometimes not getting what you want, is a wonderful stroke of luck.”   (Dali Lama)  

Song of the Day:  Makin’ Whoopee – because the lyrics are fun